By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – The anti-Christ. The Battle of Armageddon. The dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
You don’t have to be a student of religion to recognize references from the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Bible has fascinated readers for centuries. People who don’t even follow religion are nonetheless familiar with figures and images from Revelation.
And why not? No other New Testament book reads like Revelation. The book virtually drips with blood and reeks of sulfur. At the center of this final battle between good and evil is an action-hero-like Jesus, who is in no mood to turn the other cheek.
Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, first read Revelation as a teenager. She read it again in writing her latest book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.”
Pagels’ book is built around a simple question: What does Revelation mean? Her answers may disturb people who see the book as a prophecy about the end of the world.
But people have clashed over the meaning of Revelation ever since it was virtually forced into the New Testament canon over the protests of some early church leaders, Pagels says.
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“There were always debates about it,” she says. “Some people said a heretic wrote it. Some said a disciple. There were always people who loved and championed it.”
The debate persists. Pagels adds to it by challenging some of the common assumptions about Revelation.
Here are what she says are four big myths about Revelation::
1. It’s about the end of the world
Anyone who has read the popular “Left Behind” novels or listened to pastors preaching about the “rapture” might see Revelation as a blow-by-blow preview of how the world will end.
Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation was actually describing the way his own world ended.
She says the writer of Revelation may have been called John – the book is sometimes called “Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” but he was not the disciple who accompanied Jesus. He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos, off the coast of present-day Greece.
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“He would have been a very simple man in his clothes and dress,” Pagels says. “He may have gone from church to church preaching his message. He seems more like a traveling preacher or a prophet.”
The author of Revelation had experienced a catastrophe. He wrote his book not long after 60,000 Roman soldiers had stormed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burned down its great temple and left the city in ruins after putting down an armed Jewish revolt.
For some of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem was incomprehensible. They had expected Jesus to return “with power” and conquer Rome before inaugurating a new age. But Rome had conquered Jesus’ homeland instead.
The author of Revelation was trying to encourage the followers of Jesus at a time when their world seemed doomed. Think of the Winston Churchill radio broadcasts delivered to the British during the darkest days of World War II.
Revelation was an anti-Roman tract and a piece of war propaganda wrapped in one. The message: God would return and destroy the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem.
“His primary target is Rome,” Pagels says of the book’s author. “He really is deeply angry and grieved at the Jewish war and what happened to his people.”
2. The numerals 666 stand for the devil
The 1976 horror film “The Omen” scared a lot of folks. It may have scared some theologians, too, who began encountering people whose view of Revelation comes from a Hollywood movie.
“The Omen” depicted the birth and rise of the “anti-Christ,” the cunning son of Satan who would be known by “the mark of the beast,” 666, on his body.
Here’s the passage from Revelation that “The Omen” alluded to: “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”
Good movies, though, don’t always make good theology. Most people think 666 stands for an anti-Christ-like figure that will deceive humanity and trigger a final battle between good and evil. Some people think he’s already here.
Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation didn’t really intend 666 as the devil’s digits. He was describing another incarnation of evil: The Roman emperor, Nero.
The arrogant and demented Nero was particularly despised by the earliest followers of Jesus, including the writer of Revelation. Nero was said to have burned followers of Jesus alive to illuminate his garden.
But the author of Revelation couldn’t safely name Nero, so he used the Jewish numerology system to spell out Nero’s imperial name, Pagels says.
Pagels says that John may have had in mind other meanings for the mark of the beast: the imperial stamp Romans used on official documents, tattoos authorizing people to engage in Roman business, or the images of Roman emperors on stamps and coins.
Since Revelation’s author writes in “the language of dreams and nightmares,” Pagels says it’s easy for outsiders to misconstrue the book’s original meaning.
Still, they take heart from Revelation’s larger message, she writes:
“…Countless people for thousands of years have been able to see their own conflicts, fears, and hopes reflected in his prophecies. And because he speaks from his convictions about divine justice, many readers have found reassurance in his conviction that there is meaning in history – even when he does not say exactly what that meaning is – and that there is hope.”
3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian
The author of Revelation hated Rome, but he also scorned another group – a group of people we would call Christians today, Pagels says.
There’s a common perception that there was a golden age of Christianity, when most Christians agreed on an uncontaminated version of the faith. Yet there was never one agreed-upon Christianity. There were always clashing visions.
Revelation reflects some of those early clashes in the church, Pagels says.
That idea isn’t new territory for Pagels. She won the National Book Award for “The Gnostic Gospels,” a 1979 book that examined a cache of newly discovered “secret” gospels of Jesus. The book, along with other work from Pagels, argues that there were other accounts of Jesus’ life that were suppressed by early church leaders because it didn’t fit with their agenda.
The author of Revelation was like an activist crusading for traditional values. In his case, he was a devout Jew who saw Jesus as the messiah. But he didn’t like the message that the apostle Paul and other followers of Jesus were preaching.
This new message insisted that gentiles could become followers of Jesus without adopting the requirements of the Torah. It accepted women leaders, and intermarriage with gentiles, Pagels says.
The new message was a lot like what we call Christianity today.
That was too much for the author of Revelation. At one point, he calls a woman leader in an early church community a “Jezebel.” He calls one of those gentile-accepting churches a “synagogue of Satan.”
John was defending a form of Christianity that would be eclipsed by the Christians he attacked, Pagels says.
“What John of Patmos preached would have looked old-fashioned – and simply wrong to Paul’s converts…,” she writes.
The author of Revelation was a follower of Jesus, but he wasn’t what some people would call a Christian today, Pagels says.
“There’s no indication that he read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or that he read the gospels or Paul’s letters,” she says. “….He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”
4. There is only one Book of Revelation
There’s no other book in the Bible quite like Revelation, but there are plenty of books like Revelation that didn’t make it into the Bible, Pagels says.
Early church leaders suppressed an “astonishing” range of books that claimed to be revelations from apostles such as Peter and James. Many of these books were read and treasured by Christians throughout the Roman Empire, she says.
There was even another “Secret Revelation of John.” In this one, Jesus wasn’t a divine warrior, but someone who first appeared to the apostle Paul as a blazing light, then as a child, an old man and, some scholars say, a woman.
So why did the revelation from John of Patmos make it into the Bible, but not the others?
Pagels traces that decision largely to Bishop Athanasius, a pugnacious church leader who championed Revelation about 360 years after the death of Jesus.
Athanasius was so fiery that during his 46 years as bishop he was deposed and exiled five times. He was primarily responsible for shaping the New Testament while excluding books he labeled as hearsay, Pagels says.
Many church leaders opposed including Revelation in the New Testament. Athanasius’s predecessor said the book was “unintelligible, irrational and false.”
Athanasius, though, saw Revelation as a useful political tool. He transformed it into an attack ad against Christians who questioned him.
Rome was no longer the enemy; those who questioned church authority were the anti-Christs in Athanasius’s reading of Revelation, Pagels says.
“Athanasius interprets Revelation’s cosmic war as a vivid picture of his own crusade against heretics and reads John’s visions as a sharp warning to Christian dissidents,” she writes. “God is about to divide the saved from the damned – which now means dividing the ‘orthodox’ from ‘heretics.’ ’’
Centuries later, Revelation still divides people. Pagels calls it the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible.
Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning.
“The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”
–"Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, first read Revelation as a teenager. She read it again in writing her latest book,"–
Nothing like an in depth study.
Nothing about that sentence precludes multiple readings. And even if she had in fact only read the book twice, that would still be twice more than most believers, who rely on the ramblings of semi-literate preachers.
No joke! Could she be any more off base with everything she said?
JOregon, perhaps you are unaware of Ms. Pagels and her many works. If you had any idea, you wouldn't have made such an egregiously foolish comment.
If you have any interest in theology, take a class. Read a book. There's so much information out there. You are clearly not cognizant of any of it.
Ebby123 and YBP
If she had read it more times then why give a reference to just those two times?
I have read the book many times and my understanding has changed over time.
If God will not give someone understanding they will never understand.
Because of mods breaking my post up to search for bad word.
In Rev 13:13-14 the beast calls down fire from heaven.
Baal was not able to bring fire down from heaven (1Kings 18).
The disciples suggested Jesus do the same.
Luke 9:54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?
Luke 9:56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
Jesus wouldn't destroy, in the Garden they came to take him. John 18:3
By all rights he should have called down fire as Elijah did.
2Ki 1:10 And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.
At Gethsemane Jesus introduced a substi*tute.
John 18:6 As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.
Not sure if you know about the slaying in the spirit movement lead by Benny Hinn? It was the fulfillment of Rev 13:13-14.
Fire in the bible always represents judgment as does falling backwards.
It is these kinds of studies that give credence to the bible – she totally missed it.
You learn these things when you approach the word humbly willing to change what you thought was true, letting God lead you. She has a totally different approach.
Totally lame that "substi*tute" is a bad word.
A key difference between an atheist and a religious man is that the religious man is too scared to question religion.
Scared of what, exactly, atheist?
I like this.
If God has a plan for you, why do you look both ways before crossing the street.
I get so tired of supposedly religious people having excuse, after excuse as to why they don't follow their christian principles. They simply take the word of some minister as truth. They aren't afraid to die yet they have multiple guns in the home to "kill people breaking in". They say "gawd is forgiving" but have don't do the same in their own lives.
it is the people that don't believe in this nonsense that are the truly enlightened, the truly strong. Being afraid of questions and more importantly being afraid of the "facts" is what it means to be a believer. The truth that their fairy tales don't exist is the biggest fear in their life.
America is not a Christian nation. It is a nation of all faiths including non believers.
An uncomfortable truth. We'll get along as well as we can for as long as we can.
The last poll indicated 90% profess a belief in God.
Arizonan – exactly right.
The poll may have been correct but the beliefs are silly... That doesn't make the USA a christian nation – it makes the USA a nation with a bunch of dummies. Just read anything by Captian America, for example.
Truth7, the "nones" meaning agnostic, atheist and non-religious make up about 20%, more than Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists combined.
Elaine Pagels new book goes over well covered ground. Biblical historians have long known that the writing of the Book of Revelation was inspired by the destruction of Jerusalem and crushing of the Jewish revolt by the Roman Empire in 70 A.D. Any researcher who is not blinded by fundamentalist faith knows the symbolism relates to the times in which the book was written. The author was writing a polemic against Imperial Rome, and urging others to have faith that God would take vengeance for the destruction of the Jewish holy city. There is simply no basis for assuming it is prophesy of things to come 2,000 years later. The "rapture theology" popular with many evangelical Christians has its roots not in the context and meaning of Revelation, but in the work of evangelist John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who popularized his own apocalyptic interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
Religion = Politics
I find it all very interesting. Nothing has changed and it never will.
... he wrote, pressing his reed stylus firmly into the soft clay of his cuneiform tablet.
Correct, Matt. It also = stupidity, a lack of information, and an easy means of spreading fear and making money.
look at our world today and see the propheseis coming true who can dought it.
Uh – people have said exactly the same thing now for over two thousand years. Sadly, they keep pointing to entirely different events as their "proof" .
I don't know, folks, but can you imagine the likes of @arny thinking for himself? Maybe we should just leave some of them to live under the oooga booga Hammer?
0G: No ghoulies, either.
Do you mean 'doubt?'
Yes, who indeed can doubt it? The only possible answer to all of the worlds woes must be the last god left standing from the ancient near east. Such a learned and advanced people, even back then! It's the singularly obvious answer.
Take a class. Read a book. Education is the remedy you are in search of.
They need to call this the “DIS-BELIEF” section: Most every article I see here, is an attempt to undermine the Christian faith
Information undermines Christianity. Science. Reason. Biology. Archeology. History. Take your pick.
It is incredibly arrogant that both those in support of Pagels and those who attack her, use the appellation "Christians" too broadly. Those who are "Fundamentalist's, Evangelicals and those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible" may all be Christians, but they certainly do not reflect the vision of all Christians! There are many kind, loving and educated people around the world that are Christians and look at the groups and wonder how they can read the New Testament and get such a twisted angry view of than others.
A story like this is highly expected by CNN. Like most of the media today, and the rest on left, they don't believe in God. America is the new Rome and she will fall due to her own arrogance. The lies of vain men who feel they are superior to God. One day these people will be highly surprised when they stand before the Lord on Judgement Day.
I generally discount anything that comes from people who think of inanimate objects as female. Something hanky with their brains.
Dang auto-correct, that was supposed to be "hinky", not "hanky".
I feel like I'm talking and listening to some ancient people here. I feel like I should be saying "thoust"
That article is a LIE! You are taking the TRUE BIBLE & making a mockery of it. God's Word is TRUE. Can't anyone take a hard look around & see how much is REALLY going on??? Are you denying that the world is TERRIBLE now? John WAS a disciple of Jesus. He has OTHER books in the Bible: John, I John, 2 John.... The article denies just that. John was taken into the FUTURE to see what was to come ...He was recording warnings & events scheduled to happen pretty soon now. (the signs in the world reassure us of that) What he recorded was given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ to show us what the end of the world would be like. I cannot stress the importance of telling the TRUTH. The Book of Revelation is that indeed. In fact, the whole Bible is True & has yet to be proven otherwise. There is NO concrete evidence that debunks any of the Bible... Sadly, many will be deceived by relying on something as this article to teach them the wrong way. The Bible is CORRECT! All prophecies that have already come to past, where spoke up in the Bible..and there still MORE to be fulfilled...that INCLUDES The Book of Revelation. Everyone has free will , so any decisions you make in life your choice. People are choosing to broadcast lies instead of the truth.. Everyone who reads my 2cents , i urge you to pick up a Bible , read & accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your life.. Time is of the essence & time will no longer be your friend... Please know The Book of Revelation is accurate & many will see that soon. May God Bless You.
God is just Satan with better public relations.
It is amazing how someone can be smart enough to use a computer, can be dumb enough to live their life based on a fairy tale.
If you became ill, would you want a doctor from 2000 years ago. No? Then why do you take your spirituality from the ancient and unenlightened?
"All prophecies have come to pass" but "there are more to come". Well, which is it?
You do understand, don't you, that when you spout contradictions like this without even noticing them, that nobody takes the results of your "reasoning" seriously?
Stephanie: Thanks for the laughs.
Meanwhile...take a class, read a book, gather some information. You are clearly unaware of any contemporary New Testament scholarship. The Age of Reason started 400 years ago. The Quest for the Historical Jesus started 200 years ago. Either way, you have some catching up to do.
Warning: You are nowhere near ready for the writings of Elaine Pagels, the author discussed here in this article. Start with Bart Ehrman. He keeps things pretty simple. You should have no problem grasping most, maybe half of what he writes.
So Dixon, there are liars, dirty damn liars and statisticians. I have seen that numbers can be made to say what ever someone wants them to say by the type of questions asked and questions that lead up to the answer sought. It sounds like you have a definite anti-Christian stance. Those that follow you and agree also have that same bent. If I live my life following my faith in Christ and die, based on your answer the worst I can expect is nothing. I would have lived my life to make this a better place. If I die as you say an ignorant person with a small IQ based on your wisdom I've more than likely wasted my life. I find solace in the fact that I know in whom I have believed. I have a savior who is very real. Nothing you can say will change that. Yet, one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. In that day I will be saddened by the many who have perished because professing to be wise they became fools. I don't hate you. because there is some truth to what you have said about people who claim to be Christian but live as if there is no God. Their are tares among the wheat which God will separate in the Last Days. I disagree with most of what you have but thanks for being honest about how you feel.
The belief in Man, in "self", is the end of men.
The biggest clue to what time we are in is found in the story of the tower of Babel. All the peoples came together and said we to can reach the heavens. Look around – the "global community" is your new Babel.
A beast with two horns that looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.
As God says,"there is nothing new under the sun."
James Stuart Russell voiced similar views in 1878, in his book "The Parusia" He maintained that all the prophecy in the New Testament were fulfilled in AD 70 as stated by Jesus that all would be fulfilled in this generation – the one he was speaking to. He accepts the book as written by St John on the eve of the destruction of the Temple.Russell also states that 666 is the number of Nero's name in the Hebrew. The book can be read on the internet public library . org. I think youcan find it also with a Google search.
This article is very poorly written... When a researcher refers to people as "folks" and the writer of the article does not state what book "award" she was given along with many other terminalogy that sounds like it was written by a 5th grader . The perception is it truly was not researched properly... It is another bias article belittling Christianity and not stating the facts just making assumptions of how she sees it in her eyes. When is cnn going to post an article of Christians and the charitable work that is done like hospitals, food pantries, education, etc.... In the USA we can agree to disagree I just don't know what both sides are not reported... Isn't that was the news is suppose to be and that goes for fox as well....
Ephesians 6 : 12 comes to mind
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
What do charitable works have to do with your god? Do you think that charity proves that your god exists?
I read all these ignorant posts from Christians, "This is article bull crap! The Bible is the truth!" and am reminded of the authors sentence, "Yet there was never one agreed-upon Christianity. There were always clashing visions." So true! It's because belief comes from the imagination, and everyone imagines different things.
Google "amazing and accurate expose of the new age by a secular jew" and you WILL take revelation, 666, etc LITERALLY just the way John saw it. Elaine is part of 666. 666 is already within the jewish and christian religions. In Judaism it is called Kabbalah.
In Christianity Gnosticism is part of it
If you read the Bible like an almanac like you see in the movie "back to the future", you will see literally how incredible it is that John saw 666 thousands of years ago and it wasn"t just Nero then. The system of marking is already in place – have you seen those passive RFIDd tags in stores, they only need to go on human skin to buy and sell
This is what is referred to as pseudointellectual babel.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
Matthew 5:44-45 KJV
Man ! They really get busy at trying tio discredit our Savior by here say and crap out there.. We already have the oldest manuscripts known to man from 2000 yerar ago. It's one thing to hate , but lies and hertics on top of that is getting a little old !
There is a price for that ! READ the last few verses of Revelation.. We also have many trying to erase WW2 as it never happemed..
What poor scholarship. It amazes me that a major news outlet would publish this as factual. Needless to say, there are many theories on each of the points mentioned, the views that the author puts out are in some cases already dismissed by scholars. To the author; write something on big foot or nessie, it's more along your level of acedemics.
Not likely that there is anything of value here. The other books in the bible have some value, this is just the rage and rant of a lunatic, amplified by other lunatics through the centuries.
Organized religions, – all of them, – are killing us. So much violence committed in the name of God. I don't care who you are or what your religion is; you know this is true. The only question is will you finally admit it to yourself and make the change in yourself to clear your thinking. Join those of us that would like to live in peace, not in a world that is dominated by a violent contest between people of differing faiths. (and NO – it wouldn't be better if everyone would just accept Jesus as their Lord and savior – so don't just try to blame this on the non-christian religions - remember the Spanish Inquisition?)
You mean Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Nero, Mao Tse-tung, Castro, Che, Hussein, Idi Amin, Assad, Kony and countless other dictators & "freedom" fighters? Are those the ones you are refering to in your post?
...or maybe you are talking about cult leaders like Manson, Jones, Koresh, Applewhite, etc. who either said they were God or "of God" when in actuallity they were of Satan.
A lot of people take revelations as a literal meaning, not as symbolic. Pullleeeezzzz. I mean, can you truly imagine literal horses with breast plates of armor ? Or a literal 7 headed beast rising out of the ocean ? Or literal giant flying insects ?
Their literal belief in these occurences has got to border on psychotic. They scare the hell out of me.
It should scare the HELL out of you. Things that have never before been seen will be unleashed. Let's go back to Noah. I'm sure people thought he was psyhotic too. Rain, what is that they thought. Flood? Noah knew the truth and others mocked him. Again we are back to the days of mocking God and those that believe in him. This strengthens my faith. The more I hear against the Lord the stronger I become.
Are you truly saying that you think these creatures that he speaks of are litiral and not symbolic ? Do you not think that he may have been describing possible machines we have today in the only way he could, ie. Horses with breast plates of armor ( tanks ) or Giant flying insects ( warplanes ) ?
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.